Sunday, December 28, 2008

Soldier's Heart

I finally finished Goodwin's Team of Rivals, and it is every bit as good as reviewers have said, one of the best works of history and biography I have read. The subtitle refers to the "political genius" of Abraham Lincoln, and he clearly was a genius in many ways - in choosing people, in understanding complex situations, in disarming tensions, and most of all in timing. He would weather severe criticism and delay action in situations where even his closest friends and supporters questioned whether he understood the nature of the crisis. But with well-timed action, Lincoln would resolve the crisis with the fewest possible side effects. In chess terms, he was looking ahead through many possible moves and counter moves, but this was not only an intellectual judgment. He understood the complex interplay of tensions and feelings among his cabinet members and generals as well as with the soldiers and with the general public in the North and even in the South.

Lincoln's intellect was great, as was his ability to communicate complex issues simply but accurately. But it was his empathy that held it all together. He truly felt the pain of all the players - his cabinet members, his generals, and the soldiers he would often visit throughout the Civil War. But somehow he was able to absorb and dissipate all this pain and maintain his spirits and his ability to focus.

Team of Rivals shows you the Civil War from the point of view of Lincoln, his family, and his cabinet members. They had plenty of direct contact with the war and its effects - many of the biggest battles were within 100 miles of the White House, and some much closer. But the war itself is still somewhat abstract. So when I came across a Civil War book my daughter had read in school some years ago, I decided to do a quick supplemental read.

I actually read Soldier's Heart once before. Gary Paulsen is one of my favorite authors, even though he is known mainly as an author for young readers. The subtitle of Soldier's Heart is "Being the Story of the Enlistment and Due Service of the Boy Charley Goddard in the First Minnesota Volunteers," and it is the brief, slightly fictionalized story of a real 15 year old boy who lied about his age to enlist in the Union army 1861. He fought in several major battles, but there is little in the way of big picture perspective here - it is pure experience and feelings, as visceral as any war book I have ever read. I strongly recommend both Team of Rivals and Soldier's Heart.

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